Is it hard to be a poet? Apparently, no. Someone said that there are more poets on this planet than ants. I would not go that far, I think that humans are still outnumbered by insects. Nonetheless, I’m constantly surprised and delighted by encounters with poets in so many different walks of life. Before moving here from Montreal, Canada (and earlier, from Poland) I thought that Los Angeles was a place where every second person is an actor or screenwriter waiting for a lucky break. I know now that it is a place of poets and artists. I’m blessed with many new artistic friendships. There are numerous poetry readings across town, there are so many different groups and groupies.
Here in Sunland-Tujunga, a small town in the foothills, we have a museum, art center, historical society, and so much more. Three groups of poets invite members: Chupa Rosa Writers, McGroarty Chapter of the California Association of Chaparral Poets, and Village Poets. There has been a monthly poetry reading series first called The Eccentric Moon, then Camelback Poetry Readings, and now Village Poets Readings. We’ve had festivals and publications, and, since 1999, the institution of the Poet Laureate has highlighted the profile of poetry. What does such a Poet Laureate do? Wonder around in a toga and a laurel wreath?
Maybe once… first and foremost a Poet Laureate is expected to read poetry, write poetry, promote poetry, teach poetry, publish poetry, and breathe poetry… Until 2006, I have never read my poetry in public, nor gone to public readings. I always had poems at home on my shelf, in my native language, Polish, in bi-lingual editions, Italian, French, and in English. I started writing after emigrating to Canada, when I felt completely out of place in my new country and decided to make a home for myself in a new language. I did two contradictory things at the same time: I changed my name back to my impossibly sounding/looking Polish original, and I started writing poetry in English. Thus, I have established a hybrid identity that is from neither the Old World nor from the New one. This fate of not really belonging anywhere is the fate of a “displaced person” who left one country and cannot grow roots in another. Poetry became, for me, a way of “rooting myself” into the new culture, exploring a new world of imagination, and recording & communicating the most intimate thoughts and emotions.
Since I like going to concerts and exhibits, I often write about music or art. This spring, I published a book of poetry about the sublimely beautiful romantic piano music by Fryderyk Chopin, whose 200th birth anniversary is celebrated this year. Called Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse, the volume includes 123 poems by 92 poets, who live in different countries around the world, but all love Chopin’s music (www.moonorisepress.com/chopin.html).
The title comes from one of my poems, based on a childhood memory of eating cherries while sitting in a tree, and listening to a Chopin concert on the radio. Here it is:
A Study with Cherries
After Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 and the cherry orchard
of my grandparents, Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk
I want a cherry,
a rich, sweet cherry
to sprinkle its dark notes
on my skin, like rainy preludes
drizzling through the air.
Followed by the echoes
of the piano, I climb
a cherry tree to find rest
between fragile branches
and relish the red perfection –
morning cherry music.
I hide in the dusty attic.
I crack open the shell
of a walnut to peel
the bitter skin off,
revealing white flesh –
a study in C Major.
Tasted in reverie,
the harmonies seep
through light-filled cracks
between weathered beams
in Grandma’s daily ritual
of Chopin at noon.
To honor my other set of grandparents, at the border of Belarus, I wrote about my summer memories of harvest, that even little children had to participate in. Thanks to Polish national radio broadcasts, Chopin’s music was present everywhere and people were all the better for it. Their attachment to this music had a root in national history and in a characteristic trait of defiance, connected to a sense of honor and nobility. During WWII, the Nazis banned Chopin and playing his music in public or listening at home was punishable by being sent to a concentration camp. People grew more attached to it, as a result. On October 17, we remember Chopin’s death of TB at the age of 39. He is long gone, but his music remains to enrich our lives. He worked hard making sure every note was just right. This is how we write poetry, too: making sure that every word is just right.
After Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3, for my Grandma
Nina, Uncle Galakcyon, and Father, Aleksy Trochimczyk
The straw was too prickly,
the sunlight too bright,
my small hands too sweaty
to hold the wooden rake
my uncle carved for me.
I cried on the field of stubble;
stems fell under his scythe.
I was four and had to work –
Grandma said – no work no food.
How cruel! I longed for
the noon’s short shadows
when I’d quench my thirst
with cold water, taste
the freshly-baked rye bread
sweetened by the strands
of music wafting from
the kitchen window.
Distant scent of mazurkas
floated above the harvesters
dressed in white, long-sleeved shirts
to honor the bread in the making
The dance of homecoming
and sorrow – that’s what
above the fields of Bielewicze
where children had to earn their right
to rest in the daily dose of the piano –
too pretty, too prickly, too bright
Published in "Voice of the Village" October 2010 issue. The 19th-century vintage postcard from Maja Trochimczyk's Private Collection.
Yucca blooms in Big Tujunga Wash, San Gabriel Mountains, photo by Maja Trochimczyk. Portrait by Kathabela Wilson, Beyond Baroque, September 12, 2010.